Our hybrid (accessible) future

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Words by Kate Larsen

COVID-19 rushed the world into digital and hybrid ways of working faster than anyone could have imagined.

Unsurprisingly, this led to a lot of reverse-engineering, working-it-out-on-the-job, and many of us getting things wrong. It also led to new ways of working and making from which many don’t want to return.

Almost overnight, artists and organisations could reach more (and more significant) markets. Audiences found more ways to engage than ever before. Importantly, those previously denied access to our programs and services were suddenly only a mouse-click away.

The move to digital and hybrid working immediately made arts employment and engagement more accessible, flexible or even possible for many.

However, just being more accessible didn’t make our sector accessible, flexible or inclusive enough, nor did it mean those changes stayed in place once we started to re-emerge.

The change also happened in a way that frustrated many Deaf, disabled and regional people in particular, those with caring responsibilities, and allies like myself. After years of community-led advocacy and self-led access (with slowish and smallish results), Australia’s arts and cultural sector suddenly got a lot more accessible the moment city-based non-disabled people needed it to. In the main, change-makers have also failed to consult with or draw on the expertise of these communities, even though they have become (through necessity) some of Australia’s leading experts on overcoming barriers to engagement with the arts.

Now, as artists and organisations move towards a new- new-normal, we have an opportunity to draw from the best of this recent experience, improve the parts that caused us problems in the past, and reimagine how we make art work onsite and online – in ways that are more flexible, accessible and better for everyone involved.

The access advantage

Making our workplaces and programs more accessible can increase our reach and improve our representation, reputation and income-generating potential. But filling a deficit or adjusting for inequality shouldn’t be our only motivation.

Being more accessible can also connect us to a broader range of artists, contemporary stories and cutting-edge work that is more relevant and reflective of our society – as well as to the strength, resilience and innovation of those who have had to creatively navigate careers and creative practices around an exceptionally inaccessible, city-centric and discriminatory monoculture.

Many organisations are still playing catch-up with their obligations around access, often scheduling a single audio-described or Auslan-interpreted experience as part of a larger project or applying standard access services to digital recordings. Making and sharing our work online automatically increases its accessibility, but doing so alone isn’t enough.

There are many other ways to access the access advantage:

Our Hybrid Future Illustrations by Bec Sheedy @mildscribbling
Budgeting for access and inclusion

Access and inclusion are often addressed at the end of a project — if there’s any money left in the budget. Many of us still think of it as an (expensive) optional extra rather than a legal requirement or creative opportunity, so it’s essential to budget for access and inclusion from the start of each year or project (rather than trying to squeeze it in at the end).

Address the budget(ing) deficit

If you are an Australian employer or service provider, you already have a legal obligation to make your programs, services and employment opportunities accessible for Deaf and disabled people. If you’re a sensible one, you know being more accessible is also better for your bottom line.

Unfortunately, many of us are still either unaware of our obligations under the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) or working with outdated and responsive budgeting models. Some work may be required to address the deficits of past financial policies to make sure you’re compliant.

Redefine what’s ‘reasonable’ (for you)

The DDA says we all need to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to ensure our services and employment opportunities are accessible for Deaf and disabled people but doesn’t define what ‘reasonable’ means (until someone sues you to find out).

In practice, what’s ‘reasonable’ depends upon your circumstances and scale. As disabled people make up at least 20% of the population, it’s reasonable to expect the same amount engage with you– not just as audiences, but as artists, staff and Board members, volunteers and other stakeholders.

Think about what you consider to be your bare minimum in terms of access provision and whether you think it would be regarded as ‘reasonable’. This may include:

Redefine ‘access’

What you choose to define as ‘access costs’ is also entirely up to you. Extending your definition of what your access budget can be spent on can help you go beyond the bare minimum and remove barriers for anyone with difficulties accessing your opportunities or services. This could include multilingual as well as Auslan interpretation, travel or childcare costs, or outreach and relationship-building work with under-represented groups and communities.

Annual access budget model

Include an access budget line in your annual Budget process that can be used across the whole organisation and/or accrue a percentage of any budget surplus into a dedicated access reserve each End of Financial Year.

Project access budget model

Include access costs in individual project budgets or funding applications with care, as this may make one project more accessible than others, and donors or panels question why you’re not already meeting your obligations in these ways.

Level up: the aesthetic access challenge

The idea of the ‘aesthetics of access’ was pioneered by Jenny Sealey of Graeae Theatre Company in the UK and introduced into Australia by SA theatre designer and disabled arts leader Gaelle Mellis. Mellis’ 2012 Vitalstatistix production of ‘Take Up Thy Bed and Walk’ incorporated Auslan, audio description, captioning, animations, pre-show touch tours and other accessibility features into the core aesthetic of the work.

Adelaide’s Access2Arts also takes an aesthetic access approach to much of its digital content, including its 2019 films on the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, which were not only captioned and audio described but which took an artistic split-screen approach to Auslan interpretation and cast Deaf people instead of hearing sign-language interpreters.

These ideas were taken up at the 2020 National Innovation games by Deaf Victorian artist Chelle Destefano, whose team proposed using colour coded captions of various sizes to express and capture the full range of emotions in performers’ speech.

Now it’s time to take aesthetic access into the digital space.

Instead of thinking of access as an afterthought, incorporate it from the start of your creative development processes – not just as a tool for audiences to experience the work but as an exciting creative opportunity to inform and evolve the content itself. This could include:

Applying aesthetic access to your art-making will add texture and layers, enhance the experience for all participants, and make it more equitable for everyone to enjoy. When planned and budgeted from the outset, it can also provide a cheaper and more integrated result.

Putting people first post COVID-19

Ours is a sector propped up on the goodwill and hard work of passionate, underpaid individuals. The metaphor of the graceful swan hiding its hard work beneath a smooth surface is better imagined as a steam-punk mechanical beast that can crush those who work it in its gears.

Like many under-resourced sectors staffed by those who believe in it most, our working practices often sacrifice our own or our colleagues’ wellbeing for the sake of ‘the show must go on.’

Access and equity are fundamental to this well- being but are often considered as afterthoughts or ‘extenuating circumstances,’ viewed as obligations rather than creative opportunities, or ignored altogether.

If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that access and inclusion have never been more critical. Making our work more accessible means more (and more diverse) people can participate in all areas and at all levels of our work – be that as artists, arts workers, audiences or more.

This article was adapted from Our Hybrid Future, a free guide to making art work onsite and online available at OurHybridFuture.com.au

About

Kate Larsen (@KateLarsenKeys) is an arts, cultural and non-profit consultant with more than 20 years’ experience in the non-profit, government and arts sectors in Australia, Asia and the UK. 

Bec Sheedy (@mildscribbling) is an Adelaide-based illustrator, comic maker and zinester.
She has presented at National Young Writers’ Festival in Newcastle, and co-organised Zina Warrior Print Fest in 2017, 2020 and 2021.

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